Viet Nguyen, a young teacher at Garfield Elementary School, was struggling to teach his first-graders about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. On the board, he had written a quote about King’s hope that people of different races could live, work and study together, but he wasn’t sure how to best convey the ideas to his beginning readers.
While puzzling over the quote, he said, he made a classic first-year- teacher mistake and turned his back on the class. Behind him, he could hear his students whispering and trying to get his .attention. “Mr. Ngyuen! Mr. Nguyen!” He shushed them, but when the clamor grew too loud he turned. “Look!” they cried.
His tiny charges had lined themselves up so that a black student stood next to a Vietnamese student who was next to a Mexican American student and so on down the line. They had their arms around each other.
“They’d integrated themselves physically,” said Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American. “I almost lost it.”
This storybook classroom moment — Nguyen still beams when he tells the story six years later — could not have happened just anywhere. In many Bay Area classrooms, the racial composition is too unbalanced to pull off this sort of stunt.